Community Spotlight: Highlands Trail Run from Musser to Hellertown

October 12, 2023 9AM: My wife’s car was in the shop in Hellertown, 26 miles away. I live adjacent to Musser. With this opportunity, I took the time to run almost the entire Highlands trail system.

My run started on the south end of Musser along Swamp Creek Road. Given there is no trail in place, I had to cut away from Musser to find my way to Quakertown. I took backroads past Boulder Woods campground until finding myself at Trumbauersville Road and Benner School Road. This let me get to Creamery Road where I could pick up the start of the Highlands trail system at the Unami Creek Trail.

I carried about 2 liters of water with me. Weather was overcast and temperatures were in the 50s or low 60s. It had rained a day or two before this run so soil levels were moist, but no puddles were present along any of the trail.

Once onto the trail, it provided an immediate sense of comfort. Traffic wasn’t a concern and the associated noise levels disappeared. The trail picks up at the Barrel Run Trail and is paved and very comfortable for running. When I reached the power line I wanted to find a way over to the Brayton Garden Trail, since there is a current gap there, so I followed Barrel Run to the terminus on Woodview Drive.

This put me into the sketchiest part of the entire run. I got to the intersection with Tollgate and considered my options. Traffic was light and there were some sidewalks, so I followed Tollgate road up until I could reach the development and get over to Brayton Garden. This was a terrifying experience. While there were sidewalks along most of the way, the run up Tollgate required careful timing, a bit of sprinting, and a dash of luck to make it through. That section is very scary as a pedestrian as the vehicle traffic is going fast, has some hidden curves and in spots very little shoulder. I found myself running to whichever side of the road had the most amount of shoulder, including running across resident’s front yards with a few small sections requiring a dash in the road. I made it through, but anxiety levels were high.

After arriving to the Brayton Gardens Trail, I started to become concerned about drinking water. I have done runs like this before and I know what happens if I don’t get enough water and was thinking about what options I might have to re-hydrate. The silly situation I put myself into wasn’t dangerous, just potentially painful to deal with running past appropriate hydration. (I’ll detail this later in this story, you’ll see.)¬† I found¬† the Brayton Garden Trail easy to follow, even as it crossed through the different neighborhoods. It’s a beautiful trail with the water along the first section and the swampland looking majestic with the leaves near the end of their cycle. I took a photo of the metal bridge and people adored it, this is a really beautiful section of trail I didn’t know existed.

Crossing over to the Hunter’s Crossing trail, I started to get more concerned about drinking water. I had nearly exhausted the 2 liters I was carrying and not looking forward to how much more I had to run. Having never seen these trails before I went in with the expectation that somewhere along the way there would be a water fountain or bathroom. This would remain a constant concern over the remaining part of the run.

Towards the end of the Hunter’s Crossing trail I found a baseball field with a water fountain sticking out of the ground. My spirits were very high upon seeing it, but as I approached I could tell the fountain was smashed up a bit. It looked potentially still functional, but when I went to use it, it’s clear the water had been shut off. As primarily a trail runner, I don’t mind using beat up water fountains or sources that might be less than perfect. I don’t care that it was beat up, but it was a real disappointment to not get any water out of this. It’s at this point I became concerned about how much of the run I had left and started to conserve the water I had left.

I got out onto Park Avenue by cutting through the parking lot. This part of the trail wasn’t well marked and I was only able to find my way by consulting my map and guessing the proper route. Some ground-level indication of the trail would go a long way here, but I know that can be difficult to maintain on pavement. My eyes tended to track along the ground in this section, so it’s possible there was signage that I missed. Crossing 309 at Park Avenue provided a nice crosswalk with proper indicator lights and I felt lucky that turning traffic respected me while I was in the crosswalk. Of all of the places to cross 309, this is probably the best option and I’m happy the trail was routed across here. Quakertown provides excellent sidewalks.

Thankfully, I have a friend who lives right off of Park Avenue. I guessed that I could refill water at Veteran’s Park, but I know my friend has an amazing Reverse Osmosis system and works from home. Given that it was a Thursday, I called him and he was able to let me refill my water at his place. I drank as much as I could and left his place with full water bottles. This was the last time I would have a chance to refill.

I took 10th St. to 9th St. and cut through the back of Panther Playground to get to Mill Street and the connector trail that goes into Walnut Bank Farms. The sidewalks and trail markers through here were easy to follow and it provided great protection from traffic all the way to Veteran’s Park. I arrived at Veteran’s Park with mostly full water bottles, used the bathroom and didn’t grab any additional water. I didn’t realize that it would be so difficult to refill past this point.

The rail trail is a great place to run and the miles ticked by easily. I considered refilling water at Upper Saucon and ended up regretting not stopping there to do so. I was feeling good as I went through there and didn’t feel like stopping, but the wheels would come off a bit after 22 miles or so and water again became a concern. This wasn’t a huge deal as I’m familiar with all of this and wasn’t running fast, but I did find myself hunting at every trailhead past here for an opportunity to fill up. I would not find one.

The car was at JCL Automotive in Hellertown. My watch indicated 26 miles as I passed it on my right, but if you’re going to run 26 miles, there’s no reason to stop there and not round it up to a marathon, so I ran past it to cross over Walnut street before turning around somewhere inside the boundaries of Grist Mill Park. After my turnaround, I stopped in to pick up the car and could drink my fill of water from the facilities at JCL.

It was a great run, I did it in about 4 hours. The trails are beautiful and I found the running to be very easy. Traffic along the trails was light and I didn’t really see anyone else until the rail trail section, which seems to be well used and much appreciated by the local residents. It could use better water availability or at the very least some indications of where water is available on the maps. I’m really looking forward to the Highlands Trail coming down into Musser. I saw a few off-shoots into the woods at Veteran’s Park and I’m super encouraged that a trail through Musser will provide similar opportunity for getting into the forest. (The forests of Musser are just wonderful. Tremendous variety, loads of climbing, cool boulders, small streams, evidence of both native American and early united states residents throughout.)